On Friday, This American Life retracted the story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” because it contains fabrications. The press release is here.
I think This American Life should keep the episode available as part of its official history of the show. Without it, we will lose a critical piece of our own historical culture, much the same way we have when we redacted the n-word from works of literature or shelved films that show actors in blackface. Without the episode, we will know where we are, but will have forgotten the steps we took to get here. Without the episode to remind us, we are bound to repeat this error at some time in the future. Moreover — while deeply embarrassing for Ira Glass — it will remain a stark reminder of his duty to respect his “blink” moments.
It is too easy for the journalism community to condemn Mike Daisey as a liar and blame only him for perpetrating this fraud. “It is about trust and truth!” they pontificate. “Without trust, journalism is nothing.”
I don’t know if it is as dire as all that, but I think the issue is about more than just trust. I think what Mike Daisey was able to pull off speaks more about who we are as an American culture than it does about the nature of journalism, truth or trust.
By his own admission, Mike Daisey is a performance artist. The monologue and the story he crafted were always his performance, whether he was on stage in front of an audience, in front of Ira Glass or Ed Shultz. The fact that each of the latter chose to ignore the fact that Mike Daisey was in character and performing was their failing, not his. I’m sure he was just as delighted in duping them as they were delighted to be interviewing him.
The Canon is replete with works by artists and writers who borrow facts heavily to spin their stories. Many times the veracity of the story is never explained as that would ruin the mystery. However, there are hints in each work to suggest that the story — while plausible — is simply not a factual account.
In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce the reader is led to believe that Peyton Farquhar has somehow escaped his hanging. In the middle of his narrative, the more attentive reader will begin noticing some inconsistencies such as the trees lining up in the forest and the shift in point of view. The reader who becomes wedded to Farquhar’s success will miss the subtle cues.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf does not even bother to hide the fact that she would be lying to the reader. “Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.” Whether or not there were lies contained in her essay or where they were is up to the reader to decide.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne introduces us to the story by way of telling us he found “documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature…I could account for their being included in the heap of Custom-House lumber only by the fact that Mr. Pue’s death had happened suddenly…” and the cloth containing an embroidered scarlet letter. Anyone of the day would have known Hawthorne to be a custom house officer and this accounting plausible. It is only by prefacing the story with The Custom House that made it believable as a historical reckoning. It was, of course, entirely false as was the story of Hester Pryne.
In each of these performances, there were a few details that were just too perfect, just too pat. But the audiences really, really, really needed to believe and each fooled its audience in its time. The cues are what Ira Glass missed. Missing the cues is what is embarrassing him.
Mike Daisey’s performance on This American Life illustrates what he knows intimately about American Culture. Mike Daisey knows the power of story in a highly-charged, desperate culture in the middle of a crises of identity.
We are a culture that will desperately believe in a myth rather than the facts. We want to believe the Olive Garden is authentic Italian food or that what McDonalds puts out as food is actually a hamburger. We believe we are paying the full price of the cell phone service we receive or that books should be free. We believe reality TV is not edited and the indie band we just discovered is authentic and has not been marketed. We believe the music we stole from a locker is justifiably ours because the music industry has been ripping us off for years.
We believe FOX News is really news and not just entertainment wrapped around a set of facts. We believe we can somehow get skinny eating whatever we want without exercising.
We are a culture that believes in a man named Jesus who walked the Earth two thousand years ago and was born of a virgin mother and nailed to a Roman cross to save us from our sins. We believe this so passionately that we are willing to bend non-believers to our will with laws and public shame. We believe this so deeply that we are willing — actually require — the person with the ability to blow up the entire world twenty-seven times over to also believe.
We believe that iPads should cost under $1,000 and blithely turn our attention away from the human and environmental abuses that make that possible. This is what makes a story like Mike Daisey’s plausible, possible and probable. It is the juxtaposition of our deep unease with the reality that people are being exploited with our insatiable need to have cheap stuff that taps our conscience just a little and tells us that Mike Daisey’s story is true, even though it is factually inaccurate.
How could we not know? The truth is, we couldn’t not know. The signs of truth are too blatant.
And we also believe that This American Life is journalism and that journalism does not tell stories. Journalism reports the naked facts, unedited. In reality, Ira Glass is every bit as skilled a storyteller as Mike Daisey is.
For this one episode, Mike Daisey was better. He should never apologize for that.